architecture design sustainability

Building of the week: Wikihouse

Architecture has been a bit of an elitist subject, historically. It tends to be richer people who can pay for good architects and get the benefits, while cheaper houses tend to be built to a template, whole streets looking the same. But what if houses were modular, and you could plan your own home from pre-designed parts?

Wikihouse is a project to create open-source components for house building. They are designed to be cut to order and then slotted together, meaning you can essentially print a house and assemble it like a giant kit. No construction skills are required, as it all hammers together with wooden wedges that are included in the templates. In fact, so is the hammer.

Wikihouse democratises building design and construction, making it possible for anyone to build what they need. WikiHouse_template
“The open secret is that in reality almost everything we today call architecture is actually design for the 1%” says Wikihouse co-designer Alastair Parvin. “The challenge facing the next generation of architects is how, for the first time, we will make our client not the 1% but the 100% – to radically democratise the production of architecture.”

The vision of the Wikihouse project is to develop a community of people using these elements and sharing their designs. In future, it would be possible to browse the options, choose what you need, and download cutting plans for a house. The materials can then be cut out of a standard sheet of plywood or other material and assembled. Beginners might want to make a kennel or an item of furniture, but in theory you could build a whole house this way. Anyone could rally a few friends and do a barnraising over a weekend.


That’s the theory, and I’ve been hesitant to write about Wikihouse before because it didn’t seem to be a proven concept. That changed this summer with the construction of a Wikihouse as part of the London Design Festival.

wikihouse london

The idea of a ‘Wikipedia of stuff’ is in its early stages, but as technologies like CNC milling and 3D printing become cheaper, there will be more and more experiments like Wikihouse.

Now, I happen to be in the market for a new shed. I wonder…


  1. I’m torn. While I think the idea of helping people design and build their own houses is a good one, I’m not sure about the reliance on high technology like CNC machines which need a lot of energy: (Detailed analysis on the ‘Low Tech Blog’ here: ) while these machines are ‘becoming cheaper’ for those in the rich world they are becoming larger and more expensive to buy and run which will centralise production of the parts, taking the power away from people and making them conumers of factory made party, and using more resources and materials which need transporting over long distances.
    Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach people to make things from locally available materials with low tech tools, so we don’t need another procuction line?

    1. Yes, this isn’t a solution for everybody, and shouldn’t replace the need for natural building techniques and local knowledge. I’m not sure how durable these buildings are going to be either, and that’s going to be an important measure of their sustainability. I doubt at this stage that it’s going to be a solution to Britain’s housing shortage.

      Let me expand on the example of my shed. I could build one myself out of scrap wood, but I’m not particularly gifted in that sort of thing. I could get a local carpenter to build one for me, but it would be too expensive. I’m likely to buy one, but I can’t guarantee where the wood came from or where it was made, certainly if I get it from one of the big DIY stores. And it would be off the shelf, rather than tailored to what I need.

      The wiki approach would give me an intermediate solution, where I’d be in control of the design and construction. I would be empowered to build something for myself, with a couple of friends.

      If it’s going to be more than a niche option in the developing world, you’re right that control of the technology is important. That needs to be democratized too, and the ‘open source civilization blueprints’ at are a step in that direction.

      1. Full disclosure: I’m just in the third year of training to be a carpenter: I’m probably biased.

        Your reply helped me to understand exactly what was bothering me about this from the start: once again we are seeing skills replaced by machines, and people turned into consumers. It seems like the worst form of consumerism as well, where we are told “Everything you want, but cheaper”. No longer is it a choice of ‘exactly what I want, at a price’ or ‘mass produced’: now it is whatever I want and cheap” putting me at the centre of my world, but taking more money from lthe local economy -because a small carpenters company can’t afford a CNC machine, and even if they could, you are back into revolving debt and the whole unsustainable system that we’re trying to get away from.

        This won’t ‘democratise’ the housing industry any more than the textile industry was democratised by the industrial revolution: Ultimately it will concentrate power in the hands of those who control the means to production and finance.

        CNC machines have the ‘advantage’ that you only need money/energy for them. They are a great new machine for exporting jobs to places where people will work for less, which will export the emissions I suppose, but where will the industrially made plywood or chipboard come from for that kit of parts? These are not locally produced materials: producing them uses a lot of energy and requires a large production line. What happens when something breaks? Will the consumer have the machines to fix it or will they need to replace the parts with another import from the distant factory?

        The ‘developing’ world had houses before CNC Machines were invented: they were not made using computers or kit built parts and in many cases they work better than a kit from the other end of the world. A look around the UK and Germany will reveal the same: local houses made from local materials by local people. The most attractive ones didn’t even have architects Houses built locally use local materials and methods that can be learned without going off to a distant college, they also tend to work for the climate and situation. I’m sure some application of technology is needed in some cases (I’d not like to live in a turf cottage in Scotland with an open fire and a hole in the roof for example), but using local methods as a starting point makes more sense to me.(In the former East Germany materials were rationed, so everyone pooled resources so one family could build a house. Then the next year they’d do the same for the next family… That’s a Wikihouse)

        I think that to democratise housing, we need to stop thinking of technology, and look more at the legal framework that is basically there to look after the construction industry. Look (in the UK) at organisations like the Lammas project or the work of Ben Law, who built houses from local materials which are suitable for the location and climate, can be maintained by the occupant and didn’t cost a fortune. For a slighztly less ‘rustic’ approach see the Tiny House Movement in the US and UK.

        The message from people in the ‘alternative’ housing movement is clear: It isn’t that hard to build your own house, it’s the legal obstacles that cause problems. Work to make it possible for people to build their own houses, then we can democratise housing.

        1. I respect what people like Ben Law are doing immensely, and natural building is an important art. But there’s no reason why it can’t be combined with technology too. As I mentioned with the Open Source Ecology project, the CNC technology can be democratized too. It doesn’t have to be in the hands of big companies. In fact, I have a friend who runs a small business doing CNC routering. It doesn’t have to be huge scale. You can source cheap board from China, but you can support local manufacturers too, preferably using recycled materials in a circular local economy.

          We’re also a long way from having the wide skill base that allows people to build their own homes. In future, there may have been enough reskilling to change this, but at the moment artisan skills are actually at a premium. To take the example of carpentry, when we refurbished our house recently, I wanted to install new energy efficient windows. My first enquiries were for wooden windows made by a local carpenter. That was, and remains, by far my preferred option. But it was going to cost the equivalent of a year’s wages on my part time salary. I had to compromise dramatically. I hope it will change in future as more people learn those skills, but it we shut the door to cheaper technologies, we maintain the situation where only the richest can afford real craftsmanship.

          I don’t think wikihouse is the answer. I can’t see it ever delivering a full scale, well built house that people are going to want to live in long term. But it may have a role. I suspect there would be some great hybrid homes – building the house frame with the wiki approach, and then insulating it with straw bales and cladding it with traditional materials, for example. If nothing else, it’s getting people talking about more accessible architecture and more affordable homes, and that’s worthwhile in itself.

          Thanks for your thoughtful reply. No technology is ever neutral, so it’s worth looking critically at the Wikihouse idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: